Notes from Away: The Lion City
Wednesday, March 25, 2015 12:29 PM
SINGAPORE. He was not religious, so if he dreamt in his final days, while rumors and nurses ran through the corridors of the world-class hospital, he dreamt not of heaven, but of an extraordinary life.
His face always had a lion's cast.
As a teenager, he evaded massacre in the Japanese occupation. After the war, young Harry Lee earned a "starred double first" in law at Cambridge. In the early '50s, returning to Singapore and using thereafter his full Chinese name, Lee Kwan Yew, the young lawyer addressed outdoor rallies for independence from the British, advised communist-influenced labor unions, stood for parliament, and founded the People's Action Party. The photos show a rail-thin man, tall and thinly clad in the sweltering heat. In 1959, at age 35, he became the first prime minister of an independently governed Singapore. He and his party would govern the city-state, without interruption, for the next half century.
Singapore (from Sinhapura in Sanskrit, meaning "the lion city") sits at the edge of the Malaysian peninsula - on the straits of Malacca, through which pass every tanker and container ship moving between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Singapore on the eve of independence had a population of only two million (about three-quarters being Chinese) and was a volatile amalgam of races and religions and languages, with no natural resources, no fresh water, no army, and no national heritage. Annual income per person was about 500 dollars.
Lee negotiated Singapore's tumultuous separation from Malaysia in 1965, quelled religious riots in 1966 by assuring Buddhist, Sikh, Hindi, Muslim, Daoist and Confucian of their mutual safety and respected place in Singaporean society. He campaigned in elections for the next five decades, during which Singapore ("a good house in a bad neighborhood," he often said) survived nearby civil wars and sectarian slaughters, regional communist insurgencies, Asian and global financial emergencies, energy crises, technological revolutions, a declining birth rate, an aging population, an influx of immigrants, and the rise of China.
Lee and his party were ruthless in maintaining electoral power, often charging opponents with libel and bankrupting them through the courts. The government kept the press, in Lee's words, "subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of the elected government." They won almost all the seats in parliament in every election. In 1963, Lee coordinated with the British colonial authorities to jail, without trial and for many years, some 100 political opponents accused of being communists, including his most charismatic rival. Years later, Lee admitted, "I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial. . . . I am not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose."The government's accomplishments are prodigious. It has built housing for some 80 percent of the population, mixing ethnic groups to prevent the formation of racial conclaves. It has achieved universal health insurance and the world's lowest infant mortality rate. It has paid government officials high salaries and almost eliminated political corruption. It has paid teachers high salaries, and students have high test scores. English and Mandarin are mandatory. It has forced all citizens to contribute to a government-run investment fund, and it has drafted all young men into national service. The physical infrastructure is world class. It has attracted thousands of European and American companies to invest, and millions of foreigners to work. Singapore is one of the world's busiest ports, and the world's fourth-largest financial center. In the past 50 years, the population of Singapore has doubled, and average annual income has gone up 100 times, to exceed 50,000 dollars.
Lee once said: "I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens.... And I say without the slightest remorse ... we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think."
This pragmatic, paternalistic, authoritarian, and remarkably successful regime stands as a tempting model for China and India and other developing countries in Asia and Africa. And it stands as a challenge to the widely held American presumption that free markets must lead to liberal societies, or that a totally free press is essential to responsible government.
Meanwhile, in the gathering dusk after the afternoon rains, the harbor mirrors the glass towers and the dying clouds, and the young bright Singaporeans gather along the glimmering quays. An American visitor can be stunned into many reflections by the serenity of the scene, and by its unsettling beauty.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, living and working in China.